OCD and Stunted Emotions

emotional development
Image source: http://talkingisteaching.org/resources/social-emotional

Whenever I talk about my mental health journey, I tend to break it into two acts, like halves of a theatrical show. There’s Act 1: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This begins in early childhood, climaxes at finally getting diagnosed at 19, and resolves around my early 20’s after Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) treatment. Then, there’s Act 2: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which picks up speed just as Act 1 is finishing and slows down about two years later, which brings us to today.

For me, BPD manifested as intense and rapid mood swings, chronic suicidal ideation, relationship difficulties, and extreme sensitivity to invalidation. I define BPD most simply as extreme emotions and extremely poor coping skills for dealing with those emotions. What was weird though was, from my point of view, I didn’t have these symptoms, or at least not to a severe extent, until after I had dealt with my OCD.

Looking back, I can of course recognize signs of BPD from earlier like in my teens and before my OCD was treated. There were times I got intensely angry or felt invisible and invalidated. I’m sure I was already heading in the direction of BPD. Yet, it wasn’t until the OCD quieted down that the BPD then flourished. It was as if before ERP treatment and recovery from OCD, I was too busy with OCD and all the ritualizing to have time or energy for anything else. I was very anxious, but besides that emotionally numb.

Knowing how to feel emotions is a skill that takes in depth practice. It’s something most people learn starting in childhood, and they get increasingly skilled as they grow up with more complex emotions and experiences. When I was in the trenches of OCD though for so many years, I believe it somehow stunted my emotional development. I never felt much of anything besides scared, so I never learned how to deal with feeling anything besides scared. And I wasn’t even that good at feeling scared.

But once I started working on my OCD with exposure therapy, suddenly there was space for emotions. And I had no idea how to deal with them. They were big and juicy and intense emotions pent up from so much time unfelt. And rather than feeling them productively, I pushed them away or acted in other unskillful ways which spun them out of control. Hence the BPD.

Since then, I’ve undergone and graduated from an intense Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) program. DBT was originally designed for BPD but is now used for a wide variety of people  and symptoms. DBT is all about skills, and in particular learning skills for handling emotions in constructive rather than destructive ways. There’s a whole module on emotion regulation and another one just on distress tolerance.

These DBT skills have made an enormous difference in my life. In fact, they probably saved my life, and I’m extremely grateful to have undergone both ERP and DBT treatment.

I don’t write about these two “acts” of my mental health journey to scare anyone working on treating their OCD that once it’s gone they will suddenly develop a severe personality disorder. I write about it because the other day I was talking to an OCD support group. Much to my surprise, after sharing these descriptions of feeling emotionally stunted by untreated OCD, many people could relate. I thought it was such a small detail of my story; yet, it really resonated with others.

It makes me wonder what some of the other effects are of having untreated OCD for so long. This is another reason why early intervention and treatment are so important. Not only is treatment more likely to be successful, but perhaps waiting longer affects emotional development and other areas of mental health. That’s not to say you can’t reach recovery if you don’t treat your OCD right away. I (and others who went even longer before starting treatment) show that is not true. It’s merely to say the earlier the better.

How do you view OCD and your emotional development. Do you feel that OCD stunted your ability to know how to feel and process emotions? Is this something you had considered before?



  1. Hi Morgan,
    I have a lot of similarities to your journey. Diagnosed with OCD at 19 but had been experiencing symptoms since I was 14. Stigma was the thing that stopped me from seeking treatment earlier. I’m 35 now so it’s been quite the journey. I never really thought about OCD stunting my emotional growth but now that you’ve brought it up it does seem to make sense for me as well. Like you I was just scared all the time so didn’t really acknowledge any of the other emotions. It takes a lot of work to process all that built up emotion. I’m still working on it. Thanks for sharing your story and experience 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting ideas here, Morgan. It makes me think of David Barlow’s work that led to the creation of the Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders. If I understand him correctly, he sees mental health disorders where there’s a component of managing strong emotional components as having a great deal in common. So, maybe for some with OCD there is a struggle to manage many different emotions (I think it’s true for my own son)? Thank you for sharing! – Angie

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing DBT. I am mostly familiar with CBT, for that it was an effective approach for me to overcome my Pure “O” OCD. However, DBT sounds like a useful resource worth recommending to a friend who has a child struggling with regulating emotions. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good to read this– just this week my therapist suggested we take a detour from the OCD for awhile and try DBT. I have ordered the workbook and am ready to give it a go. I ma glad to hear it has helped you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing, this is definitely some food for thought for me here, as until now I had never thought of my other emotions being affected by the OCD, but now thinking about it because of only ever really knowing worry and fear I wonder if that’s why I struggle with other emotions too. I hope you are well -FruitloopStyle 🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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